About Louis Helbig
“Helbig’s photos are not riddles; they are literal representations of the landscape, but in them he finds patterns, both natural and man-made, that toy with the eye of the viewer.”Ottawa Citizen
“Louis Helbig captures some of our most barren and desolate landscapes and turns them into bold, geometric art.”Maclean's Magazine
Louis Helbig, Photographer, Artist & Author
Louis Helbig brings an eclectic background to his work. He competed internationally on Canada’s national cross country ski team, flew bush planes in rural BC, holds an MSc from the London School of Economics, and has worked as a cabinet minister’s advisor, an economist, and a university lecturer. He left Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006 to become a full-time artist.
His work has appeared in Maclean’s, the New York Times, Adbusters, Banff Centre’s Boulder Pavement, the Globe & Mail, Discover Magazine, Business Insider, Photo Prefix, CBC, Reader’s Digest, CTV and Gizmodo, amongst others. See reviews and media features about Beautiful Destruction here.
Beautiful Destruction is published by Rocky Mountain Books. His book, with its stunning imagery of the industrial development in the forests of Northern Alberta and its unprecedented inclusion of 16 essays by prominent individuals with very different ideas, is helping to change how Canadians and the world view, understand and discuss the oil/tar sands. In Canada it is helping defuse a highly polarized, divisive issue and create space for substantive, meaningful discussion of the oil/tar sands. Internationally, it is raising awareness of a massive, largely unknown industrial project in the Canadian wilderness at the centre of one of the dilemmas of our time: grappling with the realities and contradictions of climate change versus a petroleum driven global economy.
Another ongoing project is Sunken Villages about what disappeared and has re-emerged; fifteen communities flooded by the St Lawrence Seaway in 1958 reappearing in water now clarified by the zebra mussel. In this project Louis combines his aerial photographs of what can still be seen of the lost villages with the voices of those affected by the flooding.
“Louis Helbig has been photographing Canada’s oil sands mining for several years, with fascinating results”New York Times
“Shot through acclaimed aerial photographer Louis Helbig’s lens, a swirling black and tan bitumen slick becomes strangely reminiscent of an abstract expressionist painting.”Toronto NOW
An older site showcasing some of Louis Helbig’s aerial photography. Aeration Oval and Geese is one of many popular pieces at louishelbig.com.
Please check back. An update with new materials from across Canada will soon be posted.
Some background on the Louis Helbig and the Beautiful Destruction project. This video was part of a record Kickstarter campaign in 2014. Some 226 individuals contributed $43,170.00 to make it the most successful all-Canadian crowdsourcing campaign for an art or photography project ever.
Stock photo site. It contains the largest available fully indexed stock of oil/tar sands photos. The photos are of different industrial sites (open pit and SAGD, etc.) and natural landscapes from Fort Saskatchewan to Peace River, from Fort Chipewyan and Wood Buffalo National Park to Conklin with Fort McMurray and Fort McKay at the centre of it all.
Sunken Villages Project
Aerial photographs of what remains of the communities in Ontario and New York State obliterated by the construction of the St Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s.
The photographs are complemented by interviews with and portraits of 27 people affected by the Inundation. sunkenvillages.ca
About Beautiful Destruction
Most of the photographs in Beautiful Destruction were shot from an antique aircraft, a 1940s Luscombe. This very aircraft, once owned by an American, was flown from San Francisco, USA to Berlin, Germany and back in the summer of 1953.
The imagery in Beautiful Destruction is largely aerial photography. Aviation – and aerial photography – once dominated the public imagination, in Canada as elsewhere. It was, for much of the first half of the 20th century, a romantic harbinger of progress, modernity and industry.
Commercial aviation in western Canada began in 1921 in service of Imperial Oil and the very first discovery of oil in western Canada at Norman Wells. Though neither of the WWI surplus Junkers made it to their destination (amongst other things they were shot at in Hay River) their flight was a harbinger of things to come. Oil, airplanes, and the natural resource exploitation industry are deeply intertwined. Besides the international airport in Fort McMurray, the Athabasca oil/tar sands are serviced by three, industry owned airports that carry thousands of workers to and from their homes across Canada in Boeings and Airbuses. Aircraft are integral to the culture of the oil/tar sands and the commute to this workplace for tens of thousands of people.
The oil/tar sands lend themselves to aerial photography. It is not possible to see, interpret and understand them as effectively from the ground.
“The airplane,” in the words of one Canadian government official in 1942, “introduced a romance of its own – a romance of modern pioneering,” lifting the “veil of ignorance” that in the eyes of modernists of that time shrouded the primitive Natives who occupied what was, in those Canadian modernists’ minds, uninhabited land.
I hope these aerial photographs do indeed lift a veil of ignorance, and that the critical reader will use his or her imagination to discern and reflect on whose veils and whose ignorance are playing what role in the context of Canada – in this, the Canada of our time.
Languages Used in Beautiful Destruction book
The name of each aerial photograph appears in Denesuline and Cree, the two Indigenous languages of Northern Alberta & Saskatchewan as well as English. Two essays also appear in the native language of their authors (Denesuline & French).
The Denesuline translations were provided by language specialist Allan Adam in Saskatchewan. The Cree translations are by Darryl Chamakese and Dennis McLeod. The French text was provided directly by its bilingual author, Francis Scarpaleggia.
Latitude and Longitude – Google Earth
Each of the photographs in the Beautiful Destruction Book includes the geographical coordinates of where the photograph was taken. Typing these coordinates into Google Maps or Google Earth zooms the viewer to the exact location providing another bird’s (satellite) eye view on the industrial expansion in the forests of Northern Alberta.
A special gallery has been established on this website linking some of the photographs in Beautiful Destruction to Google Maps.
Interestingly, high resolution satellite imagery of the oil/tar sands industry has only become available in the last few years. In 2008, when this project began, many of the photos would show pristine boreal forest where tailings ponds and open pit mines already existed.
The Role of Art and Engaging the Public Imagination
The seeds for the Beautiful Destruction book were sown with an art exhibition comment book.
It became an interactive exhibit on to itself taking on a life of its own.
Over 500 people left comments. (see exhibition comments). Some condemned the work. Some praised it. Few seemed unmoved. People – pro-industry, pro-environment, anti-industry, anti-environment, or those who knew little about the oil/tar sands before seeing the exhibit – wrote in response to each other (even crossing each other out) in a wonderful back and forth.
Viewers kept returning to the gallery, with a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour to earnestly explain the exhibition, its individual pieces and what it all meant. This art was placed where art best belongs – anchored in the imagination of the viewer.
A record Kickstarter campaign in 2014 helped defray some the Beautiful Destruction book costs.
Some 226 individuals contributed $43,170.00 to make it the most successful all-Canadian crowdsourcing campaign for an art or photography project ever. go to Kickstarter
Reviews and Media
The Beautiful Destruction book has been well received in the international and Canadian media since its release in late 2014 by Rocky Mountain Books.
Reviews and/or features have appeared in The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, on CBC Radio and TV, in Alberta Oil Magazine, on National Geographic Radio, etc. See reviews and media.
The costs for Beautiful Destruction were paid through Louis Helbig’s professional income as an artist, photographer and author. The project has received no third-party or government funding. This has preserved the project’s independence and integrity.
- Beautiful Destruction books may be purchased directly from Louis Helbig
(autographed or with personalized inscriptions, on request), at quality bookstores or via such online vendors as Amazon.
- Limited edition archival art prints of Louis Helbig’s aerial photographs (including from Beautiful Destruction) are available directly through Louis Helbig or at art galleries representing him in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
- Stock photographs, with the most comprehensive,
key-word indexed visual database of the oil/tar sands.
- For public presentations/speaking engagements on Beautiful Destruction
(or other projects) contact Louis Helbig.